Friday, 19 January 2018

Myths and fairy godmothers

I’m sure that the Prime Minister would have preferred that no-one asked Macron about Brexit at their press conference yesterday.  And her second preference would have been that, if asked, he would have declined to answer.  However, her fairy godmother appears to have gone AWOL for the day (well, actually, she seems to have been AWOL for some time now), and the question was not only asked, but answered in very blunt and direct terms.
Fortunately for her – albeit not for the rest of us - in the parallel universe inhabited by May and her team, this apparent answer isn’t an answer at all; it’s merely a negotiating position.  When the French president says exactly what the President of the EU Commission, the President of the EU Council, and the EU Chief Negotiator have reiterated time and again (in essence, that they too want a good deal with the UK, but they’re not going to undermine the single market to get it), what the Brexiteers actually hear is that they need us more than we need them, and of course they’re going to compromise on the single market rules, it’s just a matter of time and negotiating skill, both of which they believe – despite all the evidence to the contrary – that the UK possesses aplenty.
There is a sense in which the EU team are as deluded as the UK team in this process – the EU team actually seem to believe that spelling out mere facts clearly, explicitly and repeatedly is going to make a difference.  I’m not sure what other strategy they could reasonably be expected to follow, but depending on facts and evidence is doomed to fail when dealing with a UK leadership which remains mired in romantic historical myth.  Insofar as I see any potential benefit coming out of all of this, it is that that myth is inevitably, and at long last, going to be shattered. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Leadership responsibilities

Given Farage’s comment before the 2016 referendum on the EU that a narrow Remain victory would be “unfinished business” and lead to a demand for a second referendum, there was a strange and unusual consistency about his statement last week that he was “warming to the idea” of holding a second referendum, even if his motive was more to do with ensuring a complete separation than allowing people to change their mind.  However, consistency and Farage are not concepts which sit together well for long at a time, and he subsequently seems to have reverted to his previous position, which was, in essence, that any vote which goes his way is irrevocable; it can only be revisited if he loses.
The reaction from within his own party underlined what a happy ship UKIP isn’t at present with some saying that his judgement is shot to pieces and some even calling for his expulsion from the party.  The UKIP AM for South Wales Central has become somewhat notorious for making outrageous comments, but I suspect that he’s actually more in tune with the membership of his party than those who would prefer him to be more guarded.  His comment "Why would you run the risk? We've won the vote, why would we put that at risk by having a second one?” neatly summarises the attitude which the Brexiteers (including Farage apart from last week’s brief wobble) have held since the referendum.
Democracy is not, and can never be, a case of making a decision on one day and living with that for ever after; there has to be an opportunity to revisit decisions once taken.  It has seemed since the referendum that the Brexiteers are demanding ever more stridently that those of us who feel the wrong decision has been taken are duty-bound to remain silent and support the result, and that anyone who does not is some sort of traitor.  It’s a fundamentalist, almost totalitarian, approach to an issue which saw the electorate divided almost equally.
The issue is not whether a second referendum is undemocratic or not, it is about what circumstances, in a democracy, should be considered sufficient reason to revisit a decision taken by popular plebiscite.  The Lib Dems have been arguing for some time that the emergence of more detail about what Brexit actually means, and the incorporation of that detail into a deal of some sort provides the ideal opportunity and should be the trigger.  I’d agree that it’s the obvious opportunity, but I’m not sure that it’s sufficient in itself.  The more important factor to me is clear evidence of the sort of change in public opinion which would enable a majority of MPs to argue that holding a second referendum is meeting a public demand rather than merely expressing their own view. 
We’re not yet at that point, although I’d like to think that we can get there.  What doesn’t help, though, is for politicians who would prefer to see the decision reversed to be arguing that there are no circumstances in which there can be a second vote, because ‘the people have spoken’.  It’s as though they want to opt out of any responsibility for opinion leadership and simply wait for people to change their minds unprompted.  They are, effectively, discouraging rather than encouraging a change of opinion.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Policy, not money, is the main problem with the NHS

One recent response to the problems of the NHS has been the call for an extra penny on tax to provide more funding.  I don’t doubt that many will find this an attractive idea, and it’s certainly one way of ‘selling’ a tax increase, but I’m not convinced.  An extra 1p on all rates of income tax would raise an estimated extra £5.5 billion a year, or around 3.5% of the total health spend.  That certainly looks like a lot of money (although a cynic like me would point out that it is less than a third of the bonus which the NHS was allegedly going to get from Brexit: that infamous and largely imaginary £350 million a week works out at £18.2 billion a year).
However, I’m dubious about the idea of hypothecated taxation, particularly when the hypothecated tax in question only funds an ‘increase’ in spending.  I don’t trust governments to use the extra cash in the way that those supporting such a tax increase would prefer beyond the first year.  It would be very difficult to prove that the whole of the money raised by the extra penny was actually being used on the NHS, given that the bulk of NHS spend would still be coming from ‘other’ taxes, and the amount of that spend will vary.  And with a total budget of around £147 billion, it doesn’t take many years of a stagnant base budget for the ‘extra’ £5 billion to disappear, even if inflation remains very low.  I’m also not convinced that the problems with the NHS are as simple as a need for extra money (which is not to say that extra money isn’t required).  There are other policy issues as well.
But my main reason for disliking this proposal is that it reinforces and perpetuates the myth that the problem with public services is that the government doesn’t have enough money to meet the needs of citizens.  The prime constraint on the amount of money provided to the NHS by the government isn’t affordability, it is policies and priorities. For all the fine words uttered by ministers about the NHS being a national treasure and ever so close to their hearts, their actions don’t match those words; they choose to follow a policy of reducing overall expenditure rather than one of providing necessary services.  The obsession with balancing the budget is based on ideology, not economics.  And the fact that it isn’t a necessary policy objective is underlined by the continued ‘adjustment’ (i.e. deferral) to the timescale for achieving it.  We can fund a proper health service if we want to, without gimmicky proposals like this one.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Deciding on the numbers

There was a report in yesterday’s Western Mail about the evidence given by Professor Roger Scully to the committee of MPs looking at proposals for a reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies.  In his comments, Prof Scully was quoted as saying “Last year we actually elected slightly more councillors than Scotland did for no particularly obvious reason”.  It’s a statement of fact, of course, but I could equally turn it on its head and say that “Last year Scotland actually elected slightly fewer councillors than Wales did for no particularly obvious reason”.  The second is as true as the first, but the word order of the first implies that the problem is in Wales, whilst the word order of the second suggests that the problem is in Scotland.  My point is simply this – the difference in numbers in itself tells us nothing about what the ‘right’ number is in either case, merely that two different jurisdictions have come to two different conclusions.  The word order which we use to express that difference owes more to our own preconceptions about whether the ‘right’ number should be higher or lower than the current number than it does to any assessment of the ‘right’ number.
It’s a point which is relevant to the discussion about an increase in the number of members of the National Assembly, where I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with the conclusion that there should be more whilst being highly sceptical about all the arguments being put forward to justify that increase.  The underlying problem is that there is simply no objective basis on which to assess how many are needed, and whilst there is some clarity around some of the main responsibilities, the job itself is open to as many different definitions as there are AMs.  Comparisons with the number of members of other legislatures form a part of the argument being put forward, but who is to say – and on what basis – that those other legislatures have got their numbers right in the first place?
My own starting point is this: I’m a long-time supporter of STV as a method of electing representatives, but I acknowledge that constituencies electing 3 or 4 members under STV will inevitably cover greater geographical areas than single member constituencies electing the same total number of members.  Retaining smaller geographical units with more direct and local connections with electors is possible, under STV, only by increasing the total number of members.  So, rather than replacing 40 single member constituencies and five regions with 15 four-member constituencies, I’d prefer something more like 25-30 four member constituencies, and a consequent increase in the total number from 60 to 100-120.
But, in truth, there is no more solid, sound, or objective basis for choosing 25-30 than for the current number of 40 – or for any other number.  I entirely accept that it’s based on a compromise between my own preconceptions about the use of STV, the ‘right’ size for a constituency, and the ‘right’ total number of AMs – just as I believe that much of the debate about the whole issue is based on the preconceptions of others, backed up by an attempt at retrospective rationalisation of the conclusions to which they’ve already come.  They’re just less willing to own up to the fact.
That in turn goes to the heart of the problem in taking the proposals forward.  The lack of any consensus about the ‘right’ numbers, coupled with the politicians’ natural fear about public reaction to an increase in numbers and an unwillingness to argue that proper democracy doesn’t come free (to say nothing of Labour's instinctive aversion to more proportional representation) means that it currently seems unlikely to me that the latest proposals will do much more than join those of previous reports on a dusty shelf somewhere in Cardiff.  Still, we can always have yet another commission in ten years’ time…

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Splitting hairs

At a time when the government has managed to set itself impossible objectives over the most important change facing the UK for decades, the main opposition party, Labour, sometimes seems to be going out of its way to be even more incoherent on the same issue.  Whilst I actually agree with the Brexiteers that remaining part of the single market isn’t really leaving the EU at all (it achieves few of the objectives which they originally set themselves), it’s clear that the short term economic damage would be much more limited.  I had thought that Labour was edging towards that position, but Corbyn has managed to lead them away again, by saying that the UK cannot stay within the trading block.
Technically, what he and those speaking for him are saying is correct; “The single market is not a membership club that can be joined”.  It isn’t, and there is no way of applying to join it as a member.  It’s hair-splitting, though.  It is perfectly possible to continue to ‘participate’ fully in the single market without being in the EU, as Norway does.  It involves accepting the rules of the single market, of course, but that’s ultimately all a single market is – a set of rules and regulations followed by all and enforced collectively.
Obtaining the benefits of participation in the market depend on adherence to, and enforcement of, those rules and regulations, but in saying that “we seek through negotiation to retain the benefits of the single market” without committing to doing that, Labour are effectively suffering from the same delusion as the Tories.  The difference between ‘participation’ and ‘membership’ is mere semantics, but if they want to be pedantic, let them carry on.  The more significant difference is between ‘participation’ and merely seeking to ‘enjoy the benefits’, and until Labour move from the latter to the former, their position will continue to be, in substance, no different from that of the government.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Much ado about little

In an apparent attempt to make a great deal out of very little, there was a certain amount of over-reaction to yesterday’s news about the removal of VAT from the Severn Bridge tolls.  On the one hand, the Secretary of State for Wales declared that this would create "exciting opportunities for businesses and investors looking to make their mark in Wales"; whilst at the other extreme we had dire warnings about an influx from Bristol into Monmouthshire forcing up house prices and putting untold pressure on schools and surgeries.
The economics behind these predictions are sound enough in principle, according to the theories.  Changing the price of something affects the demand for it and people respond accordingly to the stimulus.  But there is another question involved in this, and that’s the ‘reasonableness test’: in the real world, it’s not just whether the arithmetic is correct, but whether the projected final totals look as if they might create the effects predicted.
Let’s do some simple sums.  The difference between the old toll of £6.70 and the new one of £5.60 amounts to a princely £1.10.  Assuming one trip a day, 5 days a week for around 45 weeks of the year (allowing for holidays etc.), someone commuting daily to Bristol would save a grand total of £247.50 a year.  However, assuming a cost per mile of around 12 pence, moving to a location only 5 miles further away from the place of work would eat up the whole of that saving, and end up costing more in travel costs.  If the tolls were scrapped completely, the saving would amount to a more substantial £1500.  That starts to look more significant, and provided that the increased travel distance to work isn’t more than 28 miles, there might still be a small saving, but the greater the extra travel distance, the closer to negligible the saving becomes.
So how many people would really take a decision to move home – with all the disruption and costs involved in doing so – solely on the basis of such a small sum?  Common sense suggests that the number will be low.  That is not to discount the importance of other factors such as a gap in house prices, but in the scale of things, the reduction in tolls is small. 
For businesses, of course, the economics work out rather differently, so Alun Cairns’ claims about the ‘opportunities’ depend on multiplying the effect by the number of crossings for which a business would have to pay.  For businesses involving little travel between Wales and England, the reduction or abolition of tolls makes little difference; they will naturally locate on the side of the estuary whether they trade.  For those needing substantial movements across the estuary, they are likely to locate on whichever side requires least crossings.  Reducing the tolls affects the decision in neither case.
It’s a pity though – I actually wish that the claims being made did stand up to detailed examination.  I’d really like to believe a government could achieve so much in terms of changing behaviour or promoting economic development from such a small change in policy at a comparatively low cost to government revenues, instead of merely generating photo opportunities for ministers.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Apologise for what?

Last week, it seemed as though we had government ministers – at both Welsh and UK level – lining up to apologise following the cancellation of routine procedures and appointments in the light of the winter peak of hospital admissions.  I’m unsure, though, what they were really apologising for, let alone how sincere the apologies were.
I’ve talked to NHS managers in the past about ‘bed closures’, i.e. the apparently relentless reductions over time in the total number of hospital beds available in the NHS.  And I entirely take the point that if more care can be provided in the community, and if newer less invasive procedures reduce the length of hospital stays, it should be possible to reduce the number of hospital beds without reducing the overall responsiveness of the service.  I also take the point that, in planning the total number of available beds, it is more ‘efficient’, and a better overall use of resources, to have a smaller number of beds occupied 99% of the time, than a larger number of which a significant percentage will be unoccupied for much of the year.
To put that final point another way – do we plan the number of beds around the average usage, or do we plan around the peak demand (or, of course, at some point in between)?  The direction of policy over many years now has been to plan for a lower number of beds with a higher percentage of occupancy, and that is a policy which has been pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments at UK level, and by Labour governments (including coalitions with Lib Dems and Plaid) at a Welsh level.  All of our political parties are complicit in the implementation of this policy, a point to be borne in mind when listening to opposition criticism.
I’m not going to go into the argument here about whether that policy is the right one or not; there are good arguments both for and against.  It is sufficient here to note that it is, in effect, a policy enjoying a wide political consensus.  It is a policy, though, which has consequences.  We know that there will be a peak in demand over the winter period – it happens every year.  What we don’t know (and cannot know) is the size or duration of that peak; the best anyone can do is to make informed guesses.  The point is that the policy being followed makes it inevitable that the only way to cater for a peak in demand for emergency beds is to reduce the demand for non-urgent admissions, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing happening.  In a rare moment of absolute honesty in an interview yesterday, the Prime Minister actually said of the cancellations “That was part of the plan”.  Cancellation of non-urgent cases when faced with a peak in ermergencies isn’t a failure of the system, it’s a feature.  It’s exactly the way that they have designed the process to work – and it’s the only way it can work.
So, to come back to my original question – what are the ministers apologising for?  The fact that the system is operating as planned?  The fact that neither they nor anyone else knew, or could have known, in advance exactly what the level of peak demand would be?  Making the wrong guesses?  More importantly, if they are not planning to change the overall policy (seeking to set bed numbers as low as possible on the grounds of 'efficiency'), how sincere can the apologies be?
I’m not a fan of the political culture which has developed around demanding apologies for this, that and everything, and hounding individual ministers and politicians until they say the word ‘sorry’; I’m more interested in seeing the relevant policies changed.  It sometimes seems as though that sort of debate and analysis is just too difficult for politicians these days; demands for apologies make a better sound bite.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Choosing who represents us

There’s no obvious reason why the EU’s negotiator, Michel Barnier, should not have agreed to meet Nigel Farage.  After all, he’s met with other politicians from the UK, and he is perfectly clear in his own mind that, whoever he might meet for a briefing and/ or exchange of views, there are only two parties to the negotiations themselves, namely the EU and the UK Government.  There is a danger, of course, that once he starts agreeing to meet people who have no influence on, or input to, the negotiations that he might find a very long list of people who’d like to have their tupp’orth.
There is one key difference, though, between the meeting Barnier held with Ken Clarke, Nick Clegg and Andrew Adonis in October and the forthcoming meeting with Farage.  They were clear that they were meeting Barnier to "get a better understanding" about what was going on in the negotiations; Farage seems equally clear that he’s expecting to be doing the talking rather than the listening.
Farage claims that he is going to be representing the 17.4 million who voted to leave.  It’s a claim which is specious at best.  If those 17.4 million had wanted to have a UKIP politician representing them in negotiations, they could have voted for UKIP in the election last year.  They still wouldn’t have got Farage as their representative, of course – he’d already resigned the leadership for the nth time at that point.  That’s academic, though – because only 600,000 voted for UKIP to represent them – the rest of that 17.4 million (all 16.8 million of them) specifically voted for someone else to represent them.
He does, of course, formally represent an electoral region as an MEP – a job he’s been campaigning for 20 years to abolish and which he increasingly performs on only a part-time basis – but most of the people who voted him into that job have clearly turned against his party since the last election in 2014, since there were fewer people across the whole of the UK who voted for his party in 2016 than in his electoral region alone in 2014.
Why someone who has turned his back on any pretensions of leadership and wants his only political post abolished as soon as possible still gets the attention which he does is something of a mystery to many, but it seems to be fostering delusions about the extent of his importance and influence.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Jam, cheese, and crisps

It sounds a bit like the sort of sandwich which Elvis was reputed to favour, but it’s really about the shape of Britain’s bold new future.  That future is becoming ever clearer thanks to the intrepid threesome of Fox, Gove and Johnson.  Where would we be without them?
It was Fox who told us back in March that the UK would be able to sell “innovative jam” to the French (who currently just happen to be the world’s second largest jam exporters), although he didn’t tell us exactly what an innovative jam is.  Then in December, Gove told us that Brexit means we all need to be more patriotic about cheese, in order to ensure that the price of Cheddar does not go up too much post Brexit.  And then, a couple of days before Christmas, Johnson lauded the sale of crisps to Russia as an example of the UK’s exporting might.
Basing a modern twenty-first century developed economy on jam and crisps and only eating British cheese – what could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Getting to the root of the problem

Last week, the BBC reported on the ‘cost’ of traffic jams to Welsh businesses following an analysis by a private company of 30,500 traffic jams on Welsh roads during 2017.  There is undoubtedly a cost to traffic jams – that is beyond dispute.  There is the direct cost to businesses and individuals of the fuel used whilst vehicles are stopping and starting repeatedly, or even simply operating at below optimal speed.  I’m a lot less certain, though, about the approach to costing the time involved, which is based on some assumptions about the amount of time ‘wasted’ sitting in traffic. 
Merely multiplying the number of hours involved by the salary per hour of all the individuals is a difficult enough calculation in the first place, involving as it must some assumptions about salaries, purposes of trip etc.  But the value of that time to employers isn’t necessarily the same as the cost of it – indeed, if it were, then the viability of employing the individuals concerned would surely be a question which they should be asking.  In theory, any individual spending an hour at work should be generating more – significantly more – income for the employer than the cost of that hour to the employer.  But on the basis of observation and experience, to say nothing of the application of the Pareto Principle, let alone the culture of presenteeism which seems to pervade business, I seriously doubt that the reapplication of the hours involved to other activity would make as large a difference as is being assumed.
Leaving that aside, I’m more interested in the sub-text to this type of report, which is that eliminating traffic jams (presumably by building more roads – the picture of the Brynglas tunnels in the report and the emphasis on M4 bottlenecks gives us more than a small clue to the BBC’s agenda here) would somehow recover all this lost time and turn it into productive and profitable activity.  That in turn implies that the delays and obfuscation by governments in road-building are the ‘cause’ of all this lost time.  It isn’t the only possible conclusion though.  How much of that time is being lost, in truth, not because of lack of road capacity but because of hundreds of individual decisions to drive rather than take the train?  Is this ‘lost’ time all the fault of government for poor planning and execution of road construction, or is it the fault of people and businesses who insist on using roads rather than rail?